Sooner or later in the pursuit of a career writing about music comes the moment of truth when you are put to the ultimate test — interviewing actual rock stars. Sounds like fun doesn't it? And to tell the truth, it actually is. At least when said rock stars choose to make the process easy.
Of course, with rock stars often being the overly rich and pampered egomaniacs they can be — such qualifications seem to be requirements for the job title — this is not always the case.
I've been interviewing rock stars since I was in high school, and by my own estimate I've racked up a semi-impressive resume of at least several dozen successes. My first rock star interview — later published by my high school newspaper The West Seattle Chinook — was actually obtained the old fashioned way. I staked out the hotel that the band was staying at before their gig that night at Seattle's Paramount Theatre.
While the groupies crowded the hotel lobby hoping to catch a glimpse (or better) of touring rock royalty, I noticed no one was paying attention to the road guys who handle such mediocre tasks as booking the rooms. So I struck up a conversation with one such roadie at the front desk. I gained his confidence by offering him one of my cigarettes. The roadie must have taken a shine to me, because he actually invited me back to the band's room after the show.
Before you could say Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous, I had scored an interview with T. Rex's Marc Bolan. Man, were those groupies pissed.
Of course, I had obviously got lucky here. This was also the seventies, and I was a fairly harmless kid who didn't really have that much of an agenda. Well at least, not compared to the garishly made up, and largely undressed ladies who otherwise prowled the lobby and the elevators in the hotel. Even so, I definitely wouldn't recommend using this method today.
More often, the way it works is you usually go through the record company, the publicity firm, management, or whoever else happens to be the rock star's "handler." This method will yield results most often when a band is either on its way up the ladder of success, or conversely on the slide back down the other side. This is especially true for the ever-rare, face-to-face "in-person" discussion.
More often, particularly if we are talking about rock artists who have actually earned the "star" moniker, what you end up with (if you are lucky) is a phone interview — or a "phoner" for short.
I've actually had some pretty decent phoners over the years too. Some of which I was later able to turn into even better articles. Back in the eighties, I had several of these with some of the hotter rap artists of the day like Public Enemy, Ice T, and Run-DMC, which were published in magazines like Seattle's Rocket and Tower Records Pulse!. In each of these cases, the rappers had an upcoming show in Seattle to promote, so the record companies and concert promoters were all to eager to grant me access — even if only by phone — in the interest of selling more tickets.
One of the nice things about "phoners" is that they are generally such controlled and predictable affairs. As such, they are pretty hard to screw up. Fifteen or so minutes usually means time for only the most basic of questions, which means you are not likely to get beyond the concert or album you've already signed on to promote in the first place. You are also probably somewhere in the middle of an ankle-deep line of journalists the artist is talking to in assembly line fashion from a phone in a hotel somewhere.
So, while there is little chance for disaster with a phoner, you also probably won't be breaking any big stories here.
By contrast, the face to face "in-person" interview can be quite unpredictable. First of all, since these tend to take place (at least in my own experience) either before or after "the big show" you are dealing with a variety of intangible factors.
For one thing, they are nearly always very rushed, especially if taking place in the chaotic backstage environment. Here, it's just you, the artist, and your tape recorder — usually seated somewhere in the corner of a room where dozens of assorted roadies, security guys, caterers and the like are shouting over each other as they scurry frantically about.
The artists "temperament" — meaning any number of things from his mood to his degree of intoxication — also comes into play here. Which is why it is always best to conduct these types of interviews before, rather than after a show.
I can relate any number of horror stories stemming from the backstage interviews I've conducted over the years — any one of which would make a pretty good read on its own.
There was the time I was brought into a hotel conference room to interview Tom Petty after a show in the seventies, only to find Petty face down on a table clutching a near empty whiskey bottle. Or the time I had to chase Yngwie Malmsteen all over Seattle to attempt an interview I was promised would go smoothly despite Malmsteen's "difficult" reputation.
When I asked Earth Wind & Fire's Maurice White to describe his band's new album, I got a lengthy response about the spiritual order of the universe, or some other such New Age goobledy-gook. When I asked Dennis DeYoung from Styx the same question about his band's The Grand Illusion, he replied "real good" with a cold stare. Real charmer, that guy from Styx.
But I'll save my favorite two stories for a couple of interviews that went so badly, they never even became articles at all. Here once again, the artists will be broken into those two categories of most likely to grant interviews. The first was a band just begining to climb the ladder of success, while the second was an artist who had long since made the slide all the way back down.
About six months before Licensed To Ill was released in 1987, The Beastie Boys opened a show at Seattle's Paramount for Madonna, who was on her first tour and riding the success of Like A Virgin at the time. Nobody was quite yet ready for the Beasties and their brand of white frat-boy rap, and especially not the club crowd who had come to see Madonna. So when the Beasties took the stage announcing that they were "the kings of the Paramount," they were greeted with a resounding thunder of boos.
My interview with the Beastie Boys took place about fifteen minutes after they had been booed out of the building, and apparently they decided to take out their aggressions on me. I sat down between Ad-Rock and MCA with my tape recorder on a stool in front of us. Mike D and Rick Rubin (or "DJ Double R" as he was known at the time) stood across the room.
As I nervously read off my questions from the notebook in my hand, the two Beasties decided it would be funny if they slammed their fists down right next to the tape recorder as they answered. When I politely let them know that the recorder wouldn't pick up their answers if they continued doing this, they apparently found this hilarious and simply banged their fists even harder, and closer to the machine.
Rubin, to his credit, tried to stay professional throughout this disaster (in addition to being the Beasties' DJ, he seemed to be doubling as their road manager), but it was to no avail. He apologized profusely afterwards, and I told him as sheepishly as I could that I doubted I'd be able to write the story that was my part of the deal. He nodded and said he understood.
It was the first time I met Rubin. A few years later he would hire me to work at his label American Recordings.
Some years after that, I received an offer to write some stories for Experience Hendrix, a tribute magazine that was being financed by members of the Hendrix family in Seattle. My first article was to be an interview with Buddy Miles, the former Electric Flag drummer who had briefly played with Jimi in the Band of Gypsys. The interview was supposed to take place at a Jimi Hendrix guitar competition, where a group of young, aspiring guitarists would be judged by a celebrity panel which included Miles.
I arrived early to watch the competition, and soon sat down at a table with Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson, who were also on the panel of celebrity judges. My editor at the magazine soon found me, and seemed pleased to see that I had also decided to watch the competition. He also informed me that Buddy Miles was looking forward to speaking with me. Cool, I thought to myself.
Although this editor would check back with me several times over the course of the evening, his initial reassuring welcome later proved to ring anything but true. The first thing I noticed as the night wore on was how this editor kept checking to see if I was still there, and then assuring me the interview was "still on." With each return visit, he also appeared to be acting more and more nervous.
By this time, with my own journalist's sort of "spidey sense" tingling, I decided to head backstage to check on things myself. I had seen Buddy taken back there about an hour prior, and by this time the editor guy who had become my contact had all but vanished.
The first sign of trouble came when Buddy Miles' people seemed to have no idea who I was, or that any interview was scheduled to take place at all. My editor — who by this time had suddenly reappeared — did some quick talking, and I then was informed I would be granted ten minutes with Buddy Miles.
It was well past 2 AM and the show was long over.
I was then escorted backstage to meet the great Buddy Miles. Sitting before me, and staring me the sort of hole that would frighten the devil himself, Miles was an enormous blob of humanity. He was always a big guy, but on this night he more resembled the pro-wrestler Abdullah The Butcher than the great drummer I remembered for his last real hit "Them Changes," from back in the sixties.
After asking me matter of factly, "who are you and what do you want?" I knew this was not going to end well. When he turned to another person in the room and asked if I "was really from Rolling Stone," I did the only reasonable thing I could.
I got up and I left. The editor from Experience Hendrix never got that interview, or any other article of mine.
Sometimes you've just gotta know when it's time to walk away.